During a single winter's day in 2021, three snowmobilers died in the waters around Midland.
And with two of those sledders, a father and son, dying near her home in Victoria Harbour, Christina Wood knew she had to do something.
With the help of her best friend, and one of the first responders on the scene of the accident, the Southern Georgian Bay Airboat Rescue committee was formed. The committee aims to raise funds to purchase an all-season rescue airboat for the area since no local municipalities or fire departments currently own one.
For Wood, it all started on January 17, 2021, when her husband Chris and their dog Tim were out for a walk.
Chris heard cries for help on the frozen waters of Sturgeon Point. Wood says she was at home when she heard her husband yell for her to dial 911 because someone had gone through the ice.
“I dialed 911, gave him the phone, and ran down to the water,” says Wood.
The accident happened a few hundred meters from her home in Victoria Harbour some time before 6:00 pm. She ran towards the voices, asked how many were in the water, and told them help was on the way.
“I felt helpless. It was completely dark. There were no stars. No moon. Nothing lighting up the sky. Open water. And, all I could hear were voices,” says Wood.
“It was snowing and windy,” she recalls of that night. “Our spotlights were bouncing off the snow. Firefighters were falling through the ice,” Wood recalls.
While the Tay Fire Department, and other first responders were quick on the scene, 49-year-old Jereld Bremner and 19-year-old Donny Bremner lost their lives when their snowmobiles went through the ice on Georgian Bay near Sturgeon Point.
That same afternoon, 40-year-old Bill Fournier went through the ice near Midland Point, leaving behind his partner and their six children.
Every year an average of 73 people die in snowmobile accidents in Canada. Last year, the Ontario Provincial Police reported 11 fatalities in 58 collisions.
Every snowmobile season, the OPP caution Ontario snowmobilers about excessive speed, the dangers of thin ice, and driving while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Still, 45 percent of all snowmobile fatalities occur on a frozen lake or river.
What became clear in the aftermath of both Jereld and Donald Bremner and Bill Fournier going through the ice on Georgian Bay is that there is no all-season airboat rescue in the area.
Now, Sarah Bremner, wife of Jereld and mother of Donald, and Brie Cudahy, Bill Fournier’s partner have joined together with Wood, Sharelle McArthur and Sue Cook to ensure that no one else loses their lives on Georgian Bay.
To say that the last year has been hard for both families is an understatement.
Recently, another snowmobile fatality hit close to home for Bremner. A friend of her son died on February 20 in a snowmobile crash on Six Mile Lake.
When Bremner and Wood hug for the first time since this most recent accident, Bremner says, “I needed that. It’s been a tough couple of weeks.”
For Cudahy, March Break is tough without Bill, but she takes heart in the way her children — all six — have helped support each other.
“Some days are harder than others,” says Cudahy, “but you keep going. What else can you do?
“With these women, people that didn’t know each other have become family,” says Cudahy of the women in the Southern Georgian Bay Airboat Rescue committee.
Their shared goal — ensuring that no one else loses their lives on Georgian Bay — is no small feat. The committee has done a lot of research and found a piece of equipment that may help local first responders meet that goal in all four seasons with the Sever 650k.
The fact that no township or fire hall in the area owns a four-season rescue boat may come as a shock to some.
The current rescue boat available to Tay Township Fire Department is human-powered, explains Shawn Aymer, Tay Fire Chief, who was on the scene that night, then as deputy.
To illustrate the need, the committee shows video footage that demonstrates what is best described as a blow-up canoe, called a rapidly deployed craft (RDC), that rescuers physically carry to the scene of the accident, immerse the open-air craft in the water, row out, and then pull people from the water.
This is a time-consuming process, and hypothermia can set in within minutes of falling into freezing water.
“The further away you go from shore, the less effective you can be. (The RDC) is human-powered, so, with wind, current, and the time frames involved,” explains Aymer, “the environment was against us,” says Wood finishing his sentence.
The committee came together when Wood and McArthur asked Aymer how they could help. The answer was that the fire department needed better equipment.
Getting improved equipment is “something that has been talked about for several years,” says Aymer. “These aren’t the first people we’ve lost on that lake.
“On Lake Simcoe, people may have seen scoots and airboats so they may assume that we have one up here, but we don’t.”
Cook delivers the committee’s presentation to anyone who will listen, and says “we’re hearing that from everyone that we tell about this — ‘I thought we had one’.”
To be clear, the Tay Fire Department does have a rescue boat, but the RDC is inflatable, human-powered, and open to the elements.
Aymer explains that rescuers take a kit out on open-water rescues in the winter to remove clothing and attempt to counter-balance the hypothermia that has likely already set in for most.
Twenty percent of people involved in accidents on freezing water succumb to hypothermia on their way back to shore because there’s no way to treat them.
“Coming back to shore in an open cockpit, that’s very slow — you don’t have a chance,” explains Aymer.
The current boat works for “small lakes and rivers, but not a great lake,” he clarifies.
Adds Cook: “That’s what people don’t understand. This is what we have, which is better than nothing, but it has its limitations.”
The kind of boat that would assist, the model the committee is raising funds to purchase: the Sever 650k is fast, has a covered cockpit, and it’s heated — all key elements when attempting to rescue anyone who falls into open water in the middle of winter when hypothermia can take hold in minutes.
“It’s all-season, enclosed, heated, with a cabin large enough for eight people, including a person on a backboard, and there is one available right here in Canada,” explains Cook. “It’s got a lighting system, thermal imaging, a whole navigation system — it’s really amazing.
Adds Wood: “This vessel can be launched anywhere – on snow, grass, or sand.”
The committee sees the true value of the craft in the fact that it can be used throughout the bay at any time of year.
There is a boat available here in Canada, in Saskatchewan. The price tag is $207,000, and the committee has raised approximately $40,000 through donations, and the sale of screen-printed t-shirts and hoodies in support of local firefighters and the families that lost loved ones that day in January 2021.
When you consider what’s lost without an airboat rescue craft, the $200,000 price tag is more than affordable. There is no price for saving a life.
When asked why Wood is volunteering her time this way, the answer is simple.
“I believe everything happens for a reason," Wood says. "Hopefully, I can help another family, and my hometown, save another life. I want [firefighters] to be safe out there. I want them coming home so they can continue to do their jobs and save other lives,” says Wood.
For Cook, as a seasoned boater on Georgian Bay, she explains that she’s been out on the bay and heard the distress calls over the radio.
“You hear the amount of time that passes before it’s possible to get people help,” explains Cook. “To me, I’m doing it so nobody else loses their lives on Georgian Bay.”